Students from a variety of majors join in the Schoenberg Music Building on weekday evenings to learn the art of sitar playing from their instructor, UCLA lecturer and sitarist Rahul Neuman.
NANAYAKKARA: Tucked away in a far corner of the Schoenberg Music Building is a red doorway that connects UCLA to faraway sounds of the sitar, a classical Indian instrument. Here, in Room 1846, students gather on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings with their instructor, Rahul Neuman, to learn the art of the sitar in Ethnomusicology 91F: Music of India.
NEUMAN: At the base is a large round gourd which is made out of a basically large squash or pumpkin … and that’s attached to the face of the sitar, which is called the tabli…
NANAYAKKARA: The sitar stands tall, at around four feet, and has a large spherical base connected to a long neck. Sitars have around 20 strings, which produce a relaxing and trancelike array of notes. The sitars take the spotlight in the classroom, where students remove their shoes and sit in a circle on a rug, carefully holding the instruments across their bodies. This is where Neuman imparts the oral tradition of the sitar. Looking around, you won’t find much sheet music.
Instructor Neuman found his own love for the sitar in college at the University of Washington. It was there that he began to study with the preeminent Ustad Shujaat Khan.
NEUMAN: When I first started, I think I was around 10 or so. So my mom and dad forced me to play. I didn’t want to play it at all. But after three, four years they finally gave up and I stopped playing. It wasn’t until college when I discovered the beauty of Indian classical music.
NANAYAKKARA: Neuman explains that he took over the class from his instructor, and has continued to teach the class in the same style.
NEUMAN: I inherited it again from my teacher Shujaat Khan. He had been teaching here at UCLA for 15 years, and then when he stopped and moved back to India throughout the year … I teach in his same style; it’s called Imdadkhani Gharana, a style of playing the instrument kind of mimicking vocal singing.
NANAYAKKARA: Like Neuman, second-year communication studies student Candy Samareta also found a certain joy in discovering the sitar at a later age.
SAMARETA: I’ve played the piano for 15 years before I found the sitar, and so I never thought that I would pick up another instrument, especially in my adult life, after I turned 18. And so, realizing I could learn it and actually be kind of good at it, I figured that it was really different and unexpected for me.
ALBINSKI-EULER: It’s totally reshaped the way that I think about music and hear music because it’s given me a way to think about melody, because I’ve never really thought about that before, because I’ve always been “drummer.” It’s given me a new way to express myself musically, and more melodically – not just rhythmically.
NANAYAKKARA: That was Julian Albinski-Euler, a fourth-year ethnomusicology student, reflecting on how learning the sitar has shaped the way he approaches music. Although Albinski-Euler is majoring in ethnomusicology, sitar instructor Neuman notes that his students represent a range of majors.
NEUMAN: It’s been a nice surprise, the variety of students who take the class – anywhere from ethnomusicology majors, music majors, to psychology majors, lots of biology majors – don’t know why – computer science.
NANAYAKKARA: Take for example Casey Kristin Frye, a fourth-year psychology student with an education minor. She stumbled onto the class in the beginning of her second year, and was struck by the sound of the sitar.
FRYE: I was just listening to the sound, and it was nothing like I had ever heard before … I’m just doing it for fun. It doesn’t fill any requirements for me. It’s just something that I really love to do. It’s refreshing at the end of the day.
NANAYAKKARA: As students explore the world of the sitar in Schoenberg, no matter what their background or major, each gains something different from playing the centuries-old instrument, bringing the sitar to life at UCLA and filling the air with dreamlike melodies.
For Daily Bruin Radio, I’m Priyanka Nanayakkara.